The ban on plastic bags at Outer Banks stores is on the edge of repeal.
The N.C. General Assembly agreed to lift the prohibition as part of a package of changes to environmental laws they sent Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday dealing with old issues and new problems.
The proposal, approved by the Senate on Wednesday evening and the House on Thursday morning, also would send money to the Wilmington area to address polluted drinking water.
State law requires businesses on the Outer Banks to provide paper bags instead of plastic. Many Republican legislators have been itching this year to repeal the 2010 law, which was dear to former Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Democrat from Dare County who wanted to reduce litter blowing on the beaches.
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Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican, said volunteers have found more plastic bags on the beach recently than they did before the ban passed. Most areas of the coast don’t have a similar ban, she said, so the Outer Banks shouldn't either.
“Folks, this isn’t working,” McElraft said, later adding: “All it’s doing is creating a problem for our retail merchants.”
Businesses are divided over the repeal.
The N.C. Retail Merchants Association wants to get rid of the law because paper bags are more expensive than plastic. The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce wants to keep the ban, saying in a statement on its website that plastic bags that end up in the ocean can kill marine life.
Margaret Lillard, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Sierra Club, said the repeal “flies in the face of a growing trend across the country to ban these environmentally unfriendly products. Seven states and 150 U.S. cities have restrictions of some kind on plastic bags.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, said the ban is “is pretty clearly unconstitutional” because it applies only to a few beach towns and not statewide.
House and Senate Republicans packaged the bag repeal with 19 other changes and additions to environmental laws, including a plan to give $435,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to deal with a pollutant called GenX.
Wilmington residents were told in June that their water is polluted with the chemical, which a Fayetteville manufacturing plant had been discharging into the Cape Fear River for years. The state Department of Environmental Quality is leading an investigation into GenX.
“This is a fast-moving, wide-ranging problem we’re just beginning to understand,” said Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Roxboro Republican.
The Cape Fear utility authority would get $185,000 to figure out how to treat water to remove GenX, and for ongoing monitoring. UNC Wilmington would receive $250,000 to measure GenX in river sediment.
Democrats opposed the proposal, calling it a “contradictory” bill that didn’t give enough money for the problem, allocated money to the wrong agencies and lifted other environmental protections. In addition to the bag-ban repeal, it gives trash companies more leeway on how they dispose of solid waste.
House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County blasted Republicans for not working more closely with Democrats on the bill to get funding for the GenX issue without tying it to deregulation.
“All you're doing today is passing something just so you can say you did something, even knowing it’ll probably be vetoed,” he said. “… and that delay will be entirely on you.”
Jackson also criticized Republicans for spending much less than the $2.6 million Cooper had asked for to bolster DEQ’s staff to fight the pollution issues. “The legislature has cut DEQ’s water quality division over the last several years,” Jackson said.
Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat from Wilmington, said the GenX provision “demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about what is required for a long-term assessment of risk to human health.”
Butler said the university funding wouldn’t be enough money even if the school could do the kind of research needed, which she said only the federal government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can do. And the local utilities commission, she said, knew about the pollution before it became public knowledge “and did nothing.”
But Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican who also represents parts of Wilmington, backed the bill and defended the utility, saying: “They have a plan to get the GenX out of the water. That is what my constituents want. They are afraid. They are afraid for themselves, for their family, for their pets.”
Republicans said the money is just a start and more would come.
Republican Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte, an engineer with experience in pollution cleanup, said that in the meantime, Cooper and DEQ secretary Michael Regan should simply shift more resources to the problem right away.
“These people are scared,” McElraft said. “These people are afraid of the water.”